Medicine and Time

Huang Fellow Raymond Chen reflects on a seminar with Dr. Ray Barfield. 

My entire life up to college, I thought I would walk the path of a doctor. Ever since I had surgery at six years old, I wanted to give back and become my heroes, the surgeons who arguably helped save my life. I now scoff at those memories as naive dreams from my childhood, and my academic focuses have since changed. But my interest in medicine and the lives of medical professionals never left me. Their seemingly “holy” status and “cure-all” ability never ceased to amaze me. Meeting Dr. Raymond Barfield, however, has reconstructed my understanding of what being a doctor like, especially in the field of pediatric oncology, where prognostics are often grim.

More specifically, I felt that I became more acquainted with him while reading the transcript of his interview with Janice Schuster, published in The Sun in 2016, and was even more amazed when he came to speak to the Huang Fellows. Rarely do I hear stories from a doctor on such a personal level dealing with patient mortality. And reading about just a few of the many children Dr. Barfield watch succumb to cancer overwhelmed me with sadness. However, I’m sure the distress that I felt was leagues below the emotional agony he dealt with going through such events on a weekly basis. He revealed to me a vulnerability hidden within doctors behind their“priest-like authority.” Even after years of formal education and mentorship, they can still be lost emotionally and medically.

Huang Fellows listen to Dr. Ray Barfield“ width=

Dr. Barfield reminded me that although we are just biological machines, we are humans before that.

Furthermore, having studied oncology from a research perspective throughout my high school years, I often regarded patients as just case studies, just statistics, in a paper. I thought of diseases only from a biological perspective. But Dr. Barfield reminded me that although we are just biological machines, we are humans before that. And the patients who come seeking his care are real people who had lives just like mine. They have memories, pleasures, relationships, hopes, just like I do. In fact, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be me in the hospital instead, watching as drugs and rounds of chemotherapy slowly drain the life out of me.

These realizations made me reconsider my life, a privilege that many unfortunate patients won’ get to have. None of us are guaranteed a long life, and in the sense of the natural world, we as organisms don’t deserve one anyways. The US life expectancy is approximately 79 years, and I often think I’m entitled to that without considering the barriers that I might face. But Dr. Barfield said no. Nature works in mysterious ways, but disease most certainly does not, and will not, discriminate against anybody, including me.

I liked Dr. Barfield’s idea of treating every day “as a gold coin that you are required to trade for something,” such that you can never get that coin back. To me, that gold coin is time, a concept and experience I’m sure most of us take for granted. This reminded me of a blog post onWaitButWhy by Tim Urban, named Your Life in Weeks. Tim divided 100 years into blocks, each representing a week, and annotated the chart with life events, such as the end of college or the week when men first marry on average. It’s exciting to see how many blocks I still have ahead of me, but when I put Dr. Barfield’s messages into this context, I realize any number of blocks could be removed, at any moment.

Despite Dr. Barfield’s heartbreaking narratives about patients, there’s still hope and positivity in his words. I loved how he stated, “I take it as a religious discipline to be prepared to fail…and to weep with the injured because of my failure, and to grow from it, and to move on with hope.” I was reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” In the little time we have on this plane of existence, there’s little sense in accepting failure and moping around in defeat.That’s not the human way. That’s not how we eradicated smallpox, built democracies, and entered the realm of space. So, in the face of our eventual, certain demise, there’s no real reason to not at least try achieving all of our hopes and dreams.

My favorite quote for the past few years has got to be “Carpe diem. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary” from Dead Poet’s Society. In fact, it’s plastered quite literally over all my social media. It’s a reminder to myself to spend my time in a worthwhile way, so that in the little time I have on Earth relative to the vast clock of the cosmos, I won’t regret my past and who I am today. And with Dr. Barfield in mind, it’s an even more powerful reminder, a gesture to create a story out of my life, one that is meaningful, human, and unbound by time.

Raymond Chen, Huang Fellow ’22

Raymond ChenRaymond is from Martinsville, NJ and plans to major in computer science and neuroscience. Outside the classroom, he is interested in technology, environment, and photography, and is a competitive badminton player.